“We Are Our History” at the Stabi Berlin

From May 14-16, 2024, the project IN_CONTEXT welcomed our colleagues Jasdeep Singh and Devika of “We Are Our History” (WAOH) at the Bodleian Libraries (University of Oxford) to the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin (SBB). The project WAOH explores the Bodleian Libraries’ connections with the British history of imperialism and slavery. In addition to the collections of individual libraries of the University of Oxford, WOAH focuses in particular on working with the staff of the Bodleian Libraries and the wider community in the city of Oxford. Questions relating to acquisitions and a broader awareness of the close links between libraries, collections and the history of colonialism, moreover, are also important aspects of the project’s work. The exchange between the Bodleian Libraries and the SBB was made possible by funding from the Berlin University Alliance.

In Berlin, Jasdeep Singh and Devika were warmly welcomed by Julia Maas, Head of Reader Services, at the Potsdamer Straße branch of the SBB. The historical holdings on South Asia in the Oriental Department were of particular interest to WAOH. Before their arrival, Singh and Devika were able to discuss the history of the department and the holdings from colonial contexts with Christoph Rauch, Head of the Oriental Department. Colleagues Karin Druxes and Anett Krause from the DFG project “Qalamos” in Berlin made it possible to research catalogs of South Asian manuscripts on the SBB’s premises. In addition to the historical documents, it was also the designations and the classification of collections that drew the interest of our WOAH colleagues.

Foto im Stabi Lab der SBB mit "We Are Our History" und "IN_CONTEXT"

Devika, Larissa Schmid, Lars Müller, John Woitkowitz, and Jasdeep Singh. Photo: Emma Lesburgeres

In addition to working with the holdings of the Staatsbibliothek, it was a pleasure to bring together our colleagues  with other SBB staff and colleagues from the Special Information Service Social and Cultural Anthropology at HU Berlin, the NFDI4Memory, the Ada Lovelace Center for Digital Humanities (FU Berlin) and the Leibniz-Zentrums Moderner Orient. As part of a Stabi Lab workshop, we discussed topics related to the role of historical terms in the cataloging and classification of collections from colonial contexts. Which digitization priorities exist and which holdings are primarily accessible in digital collections? How can sensitive cultural objects be presented ethically and responsibly in digital collections?

Foto im Stabi Lab der SBB

Workshop “Stabi Lab Exchange with ‘We Are Our History’,” 15 May 2024. Photo: Emma Lesburgeres

In a Digital Thursday on May 16, 2024, Singh and Devika were also able to share the experiences and results of their project in Oxford with over 100 participants at the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation. They also reported on their impressions of the SBB and their work with the catalogs of the Oriental Department.

A short excursion to a remnant of the Berlin Wall at Potsdamer Platz also provided an opportunity to discuss the recent history of the Stabi Berlin in a divided Germany. The visit made clear how history and the organization of knowledge are closely intertwined and continue to reverberate to the present day. A guided tour of the Unter den Linden building also provided an intriguing look behind the scenes of the library.

We would like to thank Jasdeep Singh and Devika for a wonderful visit and the stimulating discussions. We would also like to thank our colleagues at the SBB and our Berlin colleagues for their participation and support throughout the visit.

We look forward to learning about the work of “We Are Our History” and the Bodleian Libraries in Oxford during a return visit in July.